NE Tennessee seeing disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths compared to rest of state

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Northeast Tennessee’s monthly per capita COVID death toll has outpaced Tennessee’s statewide since August — leading to a steady rise in the region’s cumulative share of Tennessee deaths.

Region began outpacing state in August

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When COVID-19 hit Nashville and other regions of Tennessee hard in the spring, Northeast Tennessee was largely spared — and the region’s proportion of COVID deaths showed it.

Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) data show that on July 31, the region had accounted for just 2.3 percent of Tennessee’s cumulative 1,060 COVID deaths — less than one-third Northeast Tennessee’s 7.4 percent share of the state’s population.

From August 1 through Sunday, however, the seven Northeast Tennessee counties in News Channel 11’s viewing area have accounted for 11.2 percent of the state’s deaths.

The share has exceeded 8 percent of the state total each individual month and from Nov. 1 through Sunday Northeast Tennessee had accounted for 15.6 percent of Tennessee COVID deaths. That’s more than double its share of the population.

Northeast Tennessee’s percentage of statewide COVID deaths has been higher than its share of the total population every month since August.

As the months since August have rolled by, the area’s cumulative portion of deaths has risen each month. That cumulative average entered November at 7.3 percent — just a hair below the proportionate share of the population — and had reached 9.0 percent Sunday.

More who get COVID here have died — why?

That now disproportionate 9.0 percent share of deaths has occurred despite Northeast Tennessee having a significantly lower cumulative number of total cases. Through Sunday, Northeast Tennessee accounted for 6.0 percent of Tennessee’s 344,076 total cases.

While no immediate clear answers are available to explain why the region’s share of deaths is one and a half times its share of cases, a few possible explanations stand out.

First, the region is known to have poorer “population health” than the state as a whole, and an older overall median age than the state average. Most of the fatalities have occurred among older and sicker people.

Perhaps even more telling, though, is the share of Northeast Tennessee deaths linked to long-term care facility outbreaks.

TDH releases long-term care data every Friday. As of last Friday, outbreaks in Northeast Tennessee had led to 160 deaths or more than 42 percent of the region’s total.

By contrast, statewide the long-term care outbreak COVID death total of 1,195 was just over 28 percent of the state total.

Those 160 long-term care deaths represent 13.4 percent of the state’s total — close to double the region’s share of the population. And of the 9,134 long-term care resident cases statewide, 12.9 percent, or 1,178, have been reported in Northeast Tennessee.

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